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This time Cubs’ late rally falls short vs. Giants in playoff rematch

Albert Almora Jr. has no chance for the catch as ex-Cub Justin Ruggiano's eighth-inning shot lands in the center-field basket.

It might have been the closest a game in May could come to showing what the Cubs feared in a potential Game 5 against the Giants in the first round of the playoffs last year.

In the teams’ first meeting since the Cubs eliminated them with a furious ninth-inning comeback in Game 4 of their best-of-five series last October, the Giants jumped on Cubs starter John Lackey for five runs in five innings to beat the Cubs 6-4 at Wrigley Field Monday night.

This on a night shortstop Addison Russell and center fielder Albert Almora Jr. set the tone for a tight fielding game with gems in the first inning and a night Lackey “threw the ball better than I had the last three [starts].”

“That’s the game we’re looking for right there,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “If we keep playing like that, we’re going to win plenty.”

Maybe Tuesday’s nationally televised meeting will demonstrate more of what the Cubs feared in October, in a game that features the pitching matchup of All-Stars Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester that never got its Game 5 chance to unfold in the postseason.

“That’s OK, compared to last whatever that day would have been,” said Maddon reflecting on the peril the Cubs faced Oct. 11 when trailing 5-2 in San Francisco heading to the ninth inning.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. To have to play the Giants, who were battle-tested, in Game 5, back here with him pitching, I did not like that thought at all.

“I thought pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Giants manager Bruce Bochy: “You look back, that’s how close that series was.”

While little of substance seems to hinge on a four-game rematch in May, both teams are struggling to find their paths back to the playoffs after rough starts.

And for one night at least, the Giants looked closer to the path.

The Giants hit two homers and three doubles off Lackey and led 6-0 before the Cubs staged another big rally in the eighth.

Giants starter Ty Blach took a five-hitter to the eighth.

Two-run homers by Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist and three pitching changes by Giants manager Bruce Bochy in the eighth induced flashbacks of last year’s epic Game 4 comeback – until Willson Contreras grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Could this week’s series – and a three-game set in San Francisco in August – serve as appetizers for another October matchup?

Both have to get there first.

After losing their ace, Madison Bumgarner, for an extended stretch because of a dirt bike accident last month, the Giants slumped to 12-24 before going on the 8-2 run they take into the Cueto-Lester game.

<em>Blast from past: Carlos Zambrano with the ceremonial first pitch.</em>
Blast from past: Carlos Zambrano with the ceremonial first pitch.

No team has ever made the playoffs after starting 12-24.

“We dug ourselves a little hole here and created a challenge,” said Bochy, whose team won three titles in five years, most recently in 2014.

“We’ve also put ourselves in a great situation for a great story.”

The Cubs didn’t sink that far since their franchise’s greatest story, but hovering near .500 more than seven weeks into the season was part of nobody’s vision of another October run.

Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward pointed at a bunched National League Central in which all five teams are separated by a total of 5½ games.

“You kind of get the drift the wild-card team’s not going to come from this division at this point,” he said. “We understand that whoever steps up and finishes the season strong is going to come out on top.”

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